While Californians and visitors flock to the beaches this spring and summer, a much smaller resident will share the shoreline: the western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus nivosus).
The small birds, found along America’s western coastline from Washington to Baja California, Mexico, are usually only six inches long and weigh up to two ounces. They have been federally protected as a threatened species since 1993.
Breeding season from March to September is an especially critical time for the birds. They lay their eggs in small depressions in the sandy area of beaches with easy access to the water—the same prime real estate sought after by beach goers for picnicking, walking pets and jogging. Overall, the birds’ nesting habitats are vulnerable to urban development, and other conditions like invasive plant species, predators, beach erosion, high tides or severe weather.
“Western snowy plovers have lost a significant amount of habitat due to human population increases and development on the coast,” said Jessica Nielsen, a conservation specialist for Coal Oil Point Reserve on the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus.
“They lay their nests on the beach, and their eggs camouflage completely with the sand. I even have a hard time seeing them when I know their exact location. This makes the nests very vulnerable to trampling by beach goers if they are not in a protected area,” she added.
“They typically nest in a certain sort of ‘sweet spot’ on the beach in dune habitats,” said Brooke Sheridan, an environmental scientist with the California State Parks Channel Coast District. “We have very few intact dune systems and open beaches left on our coast, or open space for them to nest, and they like to breed and nest where people like to recreate.”
According to Nielsen, when a Western snowy plover feels threatened it often leaves its nest to avoid letting actual or perceived predators see its eggs. Leaving the nest too often, or for extended periods of time, could disrupt the incubation process, leaving the eggs exposed to cold or even predation or burial in the sand. Once the chicks hatch they don’t learn to fly for about a month, and during this time they are especially vulnerable to off-leash pets.
In the early 1990s when listed, the estimated population along the California coast was near 1,300. Window surveys, which are standardized methods of data collection within a defined time period, during the 2016 breeding season estimate the California population at just over 1,800 birds, and the population along the entire U.S. West Coast at about 2,200 birds.
These surveys are conducted by non-government organizations and federal and state land managers, and other volunteers who help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with plover recovery through research, technical guidance and public outreach.
“Recovery of listed species would not be possible without strong partnerships between agencies, land managers, and members of the public and scientific communities,” said Lena Chang, senior fish and wildlife biologist with the Service’s Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. “Our conservation partners provide on-the-ground monitoring and management, identifying challenges and solutions to promote protection of these rare species and their habitats. It is essential to have their input if we want to develop that roadmap toward recovery.”
The Service and state and federal partners have determined the species can be delisted, when there is an average of 3,000 breeding adults maintained for 10 years along the Washington, Oregon and California coasts.
In addition, the population will be considered healthy when there is a yearly average of at least one fledged (having the ability to fly) chick per male in each geographic recovery unit for five years.
Development and implementation of plans between cooperating agencies, landowners and conservation organizations to ensure continued protection and management of Western snowy plover habitats to maintain the required number of breeding adults and chicks will be critical as well.
Sands Beach, at Coal Oil Point Reserve on the University of California - Santa Barbara campus, is a public beach in Goleta and is a great example of how the public can be part of the effort to recover the species. In 2001 the reserve first installed fencing to help beach goers recognize Western snowy plover nesting areas. According to Nielson, that was the first year the reserve had a successful nest after about 30 years of unsuccessful breeding.
“The last two years have been really strong in terms of above-average fledging success and I hope that trend continues,” Nielson said. “Our docents play a huge role in this success, as do our mindful beach goers.”
“When members of the public are aware of the rare species they share their shores with, it can benefit both the plovers and beach goers greatly,” Chang said. “This knowledge can help create the balance between enjoying your beaches and understanding why some protections are necessary for rare species to persist. Coexisting with snowy plovers on our public beaches creates a wonderful learning opportunity. Citizens are great advocates for rare species and are effective educators in their own communities.”
In 2016 the Service partnered with Coal Oil Point Reserve and film producer Michael Love to produce two documentary films about the natural history of Western snowy plovers; a documentary-length film, and a shorter 10-minute video. The films include a wealth of information about the birds, and practical information for any member of the public interested in doing their part to help the conservation of Western snowy plovers.
The Service offers the following tips for beach goers, and their friends, to help protect Western snowy plovers during breeding season:
• Take trash with you when you leave, or place trash in covered trash bins
• Keep your pet on a leash
• Keep your distance from Western snowy plovers to avoid disturbing them
• Respect posted signage and fencing that identifies nesting areas
Robyn Gerstenslager is a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura, Calif.